Canadians must have final say on electoral reform, not political parties
By Peter Ewart
The Trudeau Liberals have announced that the adoption of a new electoral voting system will be decided by the parties in Parliament, rather than a public, nation-wide referendum by voters.
In essence, this means that the political party with the majority of seats in Parliament, the Liberals, will make the decision. To drill down even more, given the dysfunctional nature of Parliament, it will mean that the swollen Prime Minister’s office, a legacy of past Conservative and Liberal regimes, will likely have the final say.
Although the Liberal government promises to consult with Canadians about any change to the voting system, the reality is that Canadian voters of all political persuasions will be left out in the cold with no actual decision-making role. Instead, there will be a fight between all the current parties in Parliament, with each clamoring for its own pet voting system. Given positions expressed so far, the Liberal Party will likely favour an “Alternative Vote“ system, which would hand it an even bigger majority of the seats; the Conservative Party will go for the current First-Past-the-Post system which favours it; and the NDP, Bloc and Greens for some kind of Proportional Representation which is to their advantage.
There is something unseemly and unsavory about this entire imbroglio in which all of the parties in Parliament are proceeding from their own partisan interests, rather than the interests of the voters and the country as a whole. The result, far from improving the democratic process, promises to foster more hyper-partisanship and division, as well as a more dysfunctional parliament.
For their part, the Trudeau Liberals are caught in an enormous contradiction. They claim they want to improve the democratic process and that Canadians are “deeply frustrated” with the current flawed, First-Past-the-Post system. Under this system, the Liberals received 39.6% of the popular vote, yet were awarded a large majority of seats in Parliament. And a similar imbalance existed with the previous Conservative government. Yet, the Liberals want to use this very flaw (which has resulted in them getting a majority of seats) to push through a significant voting system change that could favour them even more. It reeks of hypocrisy.
Now, strong arguments can be made for changing our voting system or for renewing the entire democratic process itself, given the longstanding problems. However, any such changes should proceed from democratic principles that empower the Canadian people as a whole. In a genuine democracy, the people of the country have sovereignty – all power flows from them. Any proposed changing of the voting system, or the Constitution for that matter, should proceed from that principle. It follows that there must be a democratic process structured so that it is the hands of the people, and that they constitute the final and supreme decision-makers.
Various Opposition parties and media pundits are calling for a referendum. Yes, there should be one. However, they leave out a crucial element. To be truly democratic, there should be a process independent of any of the political parties.
Political parties are private organizations with partisan interests. We need a public process, whereby a non-partisan assembly of citizens – either elected or randomly-selected – deliberates on which voting system is the best, educates and involves Canadians in discussion, and formulates a ballot question. Only then should a referendum proceed in which it is the Canadian people who make the final decision. In that regard, the BC Citizens’ Assembly is one example.
However, the fact that the Trudeau Liberals are putting the entire process in the hands of an all-party parliamentary committee, and have ruled out any public referendum, exposes an even deeper flaw in the Canadian political process. When it comes down to the crunch, sovereignty is not truly vested in the people, but rather the political parties in Parliament, especially the one which happens to command the majority of seats.
In Medieval times, kings and queens ruled and held sovereign power. Today, in Canada, it seems we have a parliamentary prince and his political party.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org